Excuse my face-mask, the readings this week in each of my classes brought out my inner hypochondriac. I was reminded of the semester in college when my friend Josh was quarantined with the “Swine Flu” (H1N1) and missed a week of classes and I started shivering. But I had to keep reading, so on I went.
In his hefty tome The Mediterranean, assigned for Historical Methods, Fernand Braudel muses that malaria was both a result and cause of inaction (“Malaria progresses when man relaxes his efforts…”) or civilizations already in decline. Braudel also connects rumored epidemics of the disease with increased movements of people and contagion (the fall of the Roman Empire and the Columbian exchange).
Aedes Aegypti, male on left and female center and right [Public Domain]
For US History I it was J. R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires, exploring how the sugar plantation boom, with its deforesting effects, compact population, and plentiful mosquito habitats, created ideal conditions for endemic yellow fever. Furthermore, McNeill contends that the prevalence of fever-laden mosquitoes helped colonial powers retain their Caribbean holdings; any invading armies would be febrile and decimated if only the colonial garrison (which had built up immunity to the pathogen) could hold them off long enough. Once the colonists in the region began unburdening themselves of European control, this advantage shifted to them, as colonial forces from across the Atlantic were decimated at an incredible rate when they came in range of Aedes Aegypti and the pathogens that lurked inside. The home-field advantage of yellow fever persisted until the United States’ occupation of Cuba in 1898. After Walter Reed’s research team identified A. Aegypti as the culprit, William Gorgas, an American army doctor, was tasked with eradicating the pests. Gorgas’ team was extraordinarily successful and when the United States acquired the site of the failed French trans-isthmian canal at Panama (which had faltered due to incredible yellow fever death rates), Gorgas went and killed mosquitoes there too, effectively ending the period of yellow fever’s reign over the Caribbean, or at least for governments that could undertake mosquito eradication efforts.
Gorgas, about to kill a bunch of mosquitoes, probably [Public Domain]
Gorgas also popped up in The Great Influenza by John M. Barry, the Managing History reading, trying to tackle a significantly harder problem; the “Spanish” flu pandemic of 1918. Propelled by unhygienic conditions (especially in military cantonments and urban areas), global mobilization of soldiers and goods, the influenza crossed the globe first in a mild form and then, a few months later, as an angel of death. Gorgas was one of a cohort of doctors, essentially the first generation of modern research medicine, that mobilized to advocate for smart public health policies and to try to find a cure. Braudel blamed the prevalence of malaria on the geography of the plains and McNeill points to human-shaped environments as the catalyst for disease. Barry’s account is all about the chameleon-esque, mutating nature of the influenza virus and the ways in which the global nature of the world of 1918 (and the war that consumed it) collided with naïve public health strategies for an explosion of contagion that made ghost towns of major American cities. Frequent comparisons to the Plague were not unfounded as the sheer logistics of burying the dead led to scenes not dissimilar to this and mass graves.
While I’ve been unsettled by the graphic descriptions of hemorrhagic fevers and violent pneumonias (to the extent that I have really come around to the idea of those medical face-masks), I’ve enjoyed the overlapping content represented in the readings. Sure, the same theoreticians pop up in all of the readings (von Ranke, Foucault, Levi-Strauss, Kuhn), but it was kind of fun to have a themed week.
And why are we reading about influenza in Managing History? Our class project for the semester is to create a plan for some sort of commemoration for the centennial of the 1918 outbreak, for which Philadelphia was a prominent node of the outbreak. So if anyone has any clever ideas for sources that would be influenza-adjacent, please share them in the comments!
If you need me, I’ll be over here playing Pandemic and trying to channel William Welch’s proteges.